I had the pleasure of being in Germany for about a week in January, and it is a country that I would love to visit again. For a variety of reasons, it must be said, not the least of which is that Germany’s reputation when it comes to beer is entirely deserved. What’s more, every single German I met told me that January was probably the worst time of the year to visit if beer was the main thing on the agenda, which only makes my argument stronger.
As a side note: every single German with him I spoke about beer also said that Oktoberfest is by now vastly overrated. I would have expected that in any case, but it was a useful reaffirmation.
In February, we will learn more about Germany, but I plan to not write about the two world wars at all. Not, of course, because they are not worth writing about, but because I would expect most people reading this to know about them in any case.
Instead, I propose to link to articles about the following topics: the founding of Germany, the reconstruction of Germany after the end of the IInd World War, Germany’s (almost horrified) fascination with inflation today, and conclude with a rather longish article about my impressions of Germany from my visit there, and what I hope to learn more about as a consequence. If you feel very strongly about any topic that should be included in addition to these, please let me know!
Germany, as perhaps most of you reading this already know, became Germany the nation – in the sense that we understand it today – only in 1871. Whether this was in response to rising feelings of nationalism in other parts of Europe, or because of Otto Van Bismarck, or a combination of the two will forever be a matter of surmise.
In the Gründerzeit period following the unification of Germany, Bismarck’s foreign policy as Chancellor of Germany under Emperor William I secured Germany’s position as a great nation by forging alliances, isolating France by diplomatic means, and avoiding war. Under Wilhelm II, Germany, like other European powers, took an imperialistic course, leading to friction with neighbouring countries. Most alliances in which Germany had previously been involved were not renewed. This resulted in the creation of a dual alliance with the multinational realm of Austria-Hungary, promoting at least benevolent neutrality if not outright military support. Subsequently, the Triple Alliance of 1882 included Italy, completing a Central European geographic alliance that illustrated German, Austrian and Italian fears of incursions against them by France and/or Russia. Similarly, Britain, France and Russia also concluded alliances that would protect them against Habsburg interference with Russian interests in the Balkans or German interference against France.
At its birth Germany occupied an area of 208,825 square miles (540,854 square km) and had a population of more than 41 million, which was to grow to 67 million by 1914. The religious makeup was 63 percent Protestant, 36 percent Roman Catholic, and 1 percent Jewish. The nation was ethnically homogeneous apart from a modest-sized Polish minority and smaller Danish, French, and Sorbian populations. Approximately 67 percent lived in villages and the remainder in towns and cities. Literacy was close to universal because of compulsory education laws dating to the 1820s and ’30s.
And there was a reason this mattered. Germany was about to change in a whole different variety of ways.
The person most responsible for this was, of course, Otto Van Bismarck. The entire Wikipedia article makes for fascinating reading, not just the excerpt below.
Imperial and provincial government bureaucracies attempted to Germanise the state’s national minorities situated near the borders of the empire: the Danes in the North, the Francophones in the West and Poles in the East. As minister president of Prussia and as imperial chancellor, Bismarck “sorted people into their linguistic [and religious] ‘tribes'”; he pursued a policy of hostility in particular toward the Poles, which was an expedient rooted in Prussian history. “He never had a Pole among his peasants” working the Bismarckian estates; it was the educated Polish bourgeoisie and revolutionaries he denounced from personal experience, and “because of them he disliked intellectuals in politics.”Bismarck’s antagonism is revealed in a private letter to his sister in 1861: “Hammer the Poles until they despair of living […] I have all the sympathy in the world for their situation, but if we want to exist we have no choice but to wipe them out: wolves are only what God made them, but we shoot them all the same when we can get at them.” Later that year, the public Bismarck modified his belligerence and wrote to Prussia’s foreign minister: “Every success of the Polish national movement is a defeat for Prussia, we cannot carry on the fight against this element according to the rules of civil justice, but only in accordance with the rules of war.”With Polish nationalism the ever-present menace, Bismarck preferred expulsion rather than Germanisation
After Hitler’s war, though, English-speaking historians were more likely to see a pattern of German aggression stretching back before 1914, and in 1961 the Hamburg historian Fritz Fischer made the controversial case (bitterly opposed by most German historians) that Germany had mounted a pre-emptive strike. The “Fischer thesis” became the orthodoxy for a while, but has been plausibly challenged in recent years by historians who have pointed the finger almost everywhere except at Berlin. The current consensus seems to be that there is no consensus. There is, finally, the question of the decisions made by a score or so of men (and they were all men) in half a dozen capitals.
As noted above, we now fast forward to the year 1990 (or thereabouts). There is much more to German reunification than the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The East German government started to falter in May 1989, when the removal of Hungary’s border fence with Austria opened a hole in the Iron Curtain. It caused an exodus of thousands of East Germans fleeing to West Germany and Austria via Hungary. The Peaceful Revolution, a series of protests by East Germans, led to the GDR’s first free elections on 18 March 1990, and to the negotiations between the GDR and FRG that culminated in a Unification Treaty. Other negotiations between the GDR and FRG and the four occupying powers produced the so-called “Two Plus Four Treaty” (Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany) granting full sovereignty to a unified German state, whose two parts were previously bound by a number of limitations stemming from their post-World War II status as occupied regions.
Next Wednesday, I’ll link to five articles about the reconstruction of post-war Germany and associated topics.